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ASC Success Strategies: Socratic Method

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is a common teaching tool employed by almost every educator, and it’s important that you, as a student, understand how to properly engage with it. Since most of the feedback you receive at Walden is either embedded in your work or takes place over e-mail, let’s work within those contexts, first exploring an example in the latter.

Sample A: Professor E-mail to Student

I enjoyed your discussion post this morning, Erica, but I do have a few questions. Is there any chance you can provide your peers with a few examples how academia, as you claim, has “a secular bias”? Why might that be the case?

The Socratic Method, when employed correctly, attempts to tease out critical thought through a specific line of leading questioning, without providing a specific directive. In short, your teachers want you to come to your own conclusions, so long as they adequately address the question or questions posed.

In the example above, the professor begins with a question (“Is there any chance you can provide your peers with a few examples of how academia, as you claim, has ‘a secular bias’?) that requires the student to consider her claim. The professor, of course, is not looking for a simple yes or no answer but rather is suggesting that the student must be able to provide evidence in order to establish her claim as fact. If the student can provide evidence, her assertion can be supported and made more compelling.

Conversely, if the student cannot provide evidence—cannot adequately respond to the professor’s inquiry—then she must come to the realization that her assertion is unfounded. Of course, a more direct professor may have reworked the question into an imperative (e.g., “In order to make bold claims such as this one, you must provide substantial evidence to support them”) but in doing so, this instructor may have prevented the student from arriving at these conclusions through her own explorations.

The second question posed (“Why might [a secular bias in academia] be the case?”) serves a different purpose. Where the first question probes for evidence and validity, this why question probes for further exploration of the student’s claim. The professor wants the student to consider the ramifications of her suggestion and determine if, in fact, this bias is a bias at all. Again, the goal of the professor is for the student to come to a well-supported conclusion on her own.

Let’s take a look at a second example, this time, a professor’s questioning embedded in a student’s draft.

Sample B: Student’s Paper With Embedded Feedback

The modern worker [Instructor 1] must be convinced [Instructor 2] to pursue a college degree. Given their current state [Instructor 3], it is clear that they will need [Instructor 4] those degrees to feed their families.  

[Instructor 1] Who are you referring to as the “modern worker”?

[Instructor 2] Can you elaborate? Who would do the convincing?

[Instructor 3] Can you clarify "current state"?

[Instructor 4] I'm struggling with this verb. Is “need” the right word?

Again, we see the professor employing a series of questions so that the student will reengage with his work and again, we see that those questions should facilitate the student’s own exploration into the more problematic elements of his paper.

Instructor 1 (“Who are you referencing as the ‘modern worker’?”) is not only a question of clarity, but a question of accuracy. In essence, it points out the ambiguity of the term modern worker, and stresses, without a directive, that the student may need to be more specific in his terminology. Surely modern worker does not apply to all workers, although the term, as presented, suggests that degree of inclusiveness. A more thoughtful term is required, and the student should come to that realization through further examination.

Instructor 2 (“Can you elaborate? Who would do the convincing?”) offers probing questions of implication. If the student thoroughly explores this question, a question of feasibility should arise, and again, the student should reach that conclusion through his exploration of the professor’s questions.

Instructor 3 (“Can you clarify ‘current state’?”) highlights an assumption made by the student, a potential generalization of the modern worker’s conditions. This should cause the student to revise (and clarify) or omit the clause altogether.

Finally, Instructor 4 (“I’m struggling with this verb. Is ‘need’ the right word?”) suggests concerns about nuance and implication. In examining the word need at the professor’s request, the student should realize that he may be overstating his claim.

Assuming the student properly engaged the professor’s line of questioning, his revision might look something like this:

Workers making minimum wage would benefit from a college degree. As noted by Timmerman, Dahlen, and Milheim (2014), a college degree has been statistically proven to provide employees with more, higher-paying, job options.

Note that this revision is not necessarily a reflection of the professor’s opinions and beliefs on the subject matter—those aren’t exhibited in the line of questing she provided—but rather it is a product of the student reexamining his work through the questioning.

As you can probably tell, the Socratic Method is all about encouragement, engagement, and critical thought. No one at Walden will tell you’re wrong (or right for that matter!), but expect to be challenged, to be asked to consider and reconsider your beliefs through a variety of lenses like this.